Fourth Annual Conference of the SARF

Fourth Annual Conference of the South Africa – Russia Dialogue Forum
28-29 November 2016
The South Africa – Russia Dialogue Forum (SARDF) is pleased to announce that its annual conference for 2016 is being planned for 28 and 29 November 2016 at the Misty Hills Hotel and Conference Centre located at Muldersdrift outside Johannesburg.
Established in 2013, the SARDF is a society-driven initiative to promote better understanding and cooperation between Russia and South Africa in the context of the special relationship into which the two states have entered. As a non-political civil society organization, the SARDF seeks to enhance people-to-people interaction and official relations in a range of fields, including the economy, education, science, culture and politics.
The central theme of the 2016 conference is Towards 25 years of official relations between South Africa and Russia. Participants will have the opportunity to take stock of the progress made in bilateral relations in various areas over this period and to ponder the future of the two countries’ relationship. At the same time the state of inter-societal relations needs to be considered, as well as the prospects for a deepening of non-official interactions.
The first day of the conference, Monday, 28 November, will consist of four sessions devoted to political and diplomatic relations between Russia and South Africa, economic and technological links (including energy), socio-cultural ties, and environmental exchanges, respectively. Policy-makers, diplomats, business leaders, academics, writers and environmentalists from the two countries will be invited to speak at the four sessions.
On the second day two exclusively academic sessions will be held. Following a call for papers, ten submissions relating to Russia and South Africa will be selected for presentation. Papers relating to the two states’ membership of BRICS and how this influences their bilateral relations and multilateral engagements would be particularly welcome. Presentations on the African agendas pursued by Russia and South Africa, separately and perhaps jointly, are likewise encouraged. The selectors will also consider proposals dealing with other aspects of the two states’ official or non-official relations, or themes concerned with their respective domestic politics or international relations.
As with previous SARDF conferences, the organisers of the 2016 event intend publishing deserving academic presentations in a scholarly journal or in some other suitable format. Academic presenters are expected to give the SARDF the first right of refusal for the publication of their conference papers.
In line with another SARDF custom, the organisers will endeavour to subside – through sponsorships – the accommodation expenses of participants in the 2016 conference. This could include three nights’ accommodation at the Misty Hills Hotel. Arrangements will be made for cultural and social events, including a visit to Cradle of Humankind at Maropeng (near the conference venue) and a meal in Misty Hills Hotel’s famous Carnivore restaurant. Optional excursions to nearby places of interest (including Pilanesberg game reserve, Lesedi cultural village and the Sun City resort) for the day after the conference (30 November) will also be offered.
For inquiries, please contact the conference organisers, both attached to the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg:
Prof. Deon Geldenhuys,
Dr Costa Georghiou,
Issued on 17 February 2016
Provisional programme of the conference is here: SARDF 2016 conference programme

On 5-6 October 2015 SARDF held its third conference and third Council meeting at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics

South Africa – Russia Dialogue Forum (SARDF)

Report on the Third Conference and Council Meeting

held at the

National Research University – Higher School of Economics

Moscow, 5–6 October 2015


The SARDF is a civil society-driven initiative aimed at promoting a deeper understanding and relations between Russia and South Africa at an inter-societal, non-state level. It seeks to  encourage cooperation between research and academic institutions and individuals in both countries, stimulating dialogue on bilateral relations and the two countries’ common interests globally (with specific attention to their BRICS partnership). The SARDF  also seeks to enhance informal contacts and relations, people-to-people interaction and mutual knowledge of our two societies.

The SARDF was created at its first meeting in Moscow at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics in October 2013, when its governing Council was also inaugurated. The point of departure was that while official relations between Russia and South Africa were extremely good, informal contacts and relations were rare and insufficient. The agreement between governments to establish a strategic partnership between the two countries, as well as the frequent meetings of the two heads of states, signal an intention to deepen relations and create room for stronger input into these relations from civil society.

The second conference of the Dialogue Forum and the second meeting of the Council took place at the University of Pretoria on 4–5 December 2014. The conference was mainly devoted to the analysis of economic relations between Russia and South Africa and to the mutual images in the sphere of economic relations. The Council suggested the topic for the next conference, discussed the possibilities of publishing the materials of the second conference and stressed the need for attracting Russian and South African business circles to the work of the SARDF.

The theme of the SARDF’s third conference, which took place at National Research University – Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow on 5–6 October 2015, was Nation- and state-building in South Africa and Russia in the late 20th-early 21st centuries: objectives, successes, failures, challenges and mutual images.

The South African delegation consisted of Prof. Gerrit Olivier (University of Pretoria), who is also co-chairman of the Dialogue Forum; Prof. Deon Geldenhuys (University of Johannesburg), coordinator; Dr Costa Georghiou (University of Johannesburg), and Adv. Frans Stroebel (director of companies). Prof Maxi Schoeman (University of Pretoria) and Prof. Siphamandla Zondi (Institute for Global Dialogue, Unisa) were initially part of the South African team but were unable to attend the Moscow conference. Prof. Schoeman’s paper was nonetheless read in her absence at the conference, while Prof. Zondi’s paper is expected to be submitted for the proposed publication of the conference contributions.

The Russian delegation comprised Prof. Apollon Davidson (HSE), co-chairman of the SARDF; Prof. Irina Filatova (HSE), coordinator; Dr Alexander Voevodsky (HSE), coordinator; Prof. Vladimir Shubin (Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences); Dr Vasily Sidorov (Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences); Dr Maria Kurbak (Institute of General History of the Russian Academy of Sciences), and Dr Dmitri Suchkov (Vnesheconombank). Dr Alexandra Arkhangelskaya (Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences) was initially part of the Russian delegation, but could not attend the conference.

The conference was also attended by students from the Institute of Asian and African Countries of Moscow State University, who specialise in South Africa. A South African journalist representing a popular SABC Afrikaans morning programme was also present.

The conference proceedings were opened by Prof. Vadim Radaiev, First Vice Rector of the National Research University – Higher School of Economics and by Mr Henry Short, Minister Plenipotentiary at the South African Embassy in the Russian Federation. The opening was also attended by representatives of the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation and another diplomat from the South African Embassy in Moscow.

Participants presented 12 papers on different aspects of the topic of the conference. A complete conference programme accompanies this report.

  1. Davidson (‘Russia and South Africa: State policies, mutual relations and mutual images’) sketched the importance of mutual images in the development of relations between Russia and South Africa from the time of the Boer republics to the present day at both state and non-state levels. He also highlighted the role that the SARDF could play in improving mutual understanding between the two societies.
  2. Schoeman’s paper (‘History, heritage, memorialisation and nation-building: Can South Africa learn from Russia?’), introduced one of the most interesting yet thorny problems discussed at the conference, namely the use of history, historical monuments and historical associations in the process of nation-building in Russia and South Africa.
  3. Dr Voevodsky’s presentation (‘Reassessing the past for building a future: Russian and South African experience’) neatly complemented Prof. Schoeman’s. Dr Voevodsky examined the ways in which the leaderships of the two countries guided the respective re-evaluations of their societies’ pasts since the end of Soviet communism and apartheid in South Africa.
  4. Olivier (‘Majoritarianism and nation-building in South Africa’) considered the implications of South Africa’s system of unfettered majoritarian democracy for the process of nation-building that has been driven by the ruling party since 1994.
  5. In her paper (‘Russia and South Africa: Nation-building texts’) Prof. Filatova analysed the official nation-building discourse in the two countries by referring to respective constitutions, other laws and policy documents.
  6. Geldenhuys (‘The current status of good governance in South Africa’s state-rebuilding project’) assessed the quality of governance in South Africa by reference to several international indexes, and found that weaknesses in governance performance placed the post-1994 ‘state-rebuilding project’ in jeopardy.
  7. Shubin (‘Russia in a distorting mirror of South African media’) exposed misrepresentations of the two societies in the countries’ respective media outlets, particularly in the portrayal of government leaders.
  8. Dr Kurbak (‘State policy concerning freedom of speech in Russia and South Africa today’) investigated state restrictions on freedom of speech in the Soviet era and in apartheid South Africa, and then set out the changes in both countries since the 1990s. Compared with democratic South Africa, the Russian state has considerable power to restrict freedom of speech, especially that of the mass media.
  9. In his paper (‘South Africa and Russia: Investment and nation-building’) Dr Sidorov discussed the main Russian companies’ investments in South Africa and those of leading South African corporations in Russia, and then considered whether such ties assisted in nation-building in the respective countries.
  10. Dr Georghiou (‘State-building in South Africa post-1994: The developmental state discourse’) identified serious domestic obstacles to South Africa achieving its goal of becoming a democratic developmental state. These include the state’s lack of capacity and of political will, and divisions in ruling circles.

11.Dr Suchkov (‘Russia-South Africa trade and economic update’) provided a ‘snapshot’ of bilateral economic ties between the two states. Focusing on trade and investment, he examined current commercial relations and pondered future transactions involving both private companies and state-owned enterprises.

  1. Finally, Adv. Stroebel (‘The idea is always bigger than the man: Using the Peace Parks Foundation success as example’) gave an overview of the development of peace parks across the world, many of them straddling international borders. These initiatives, he argued, support sustainable economic development, conserve biodiversity and can contribute to regional peace and stability.

The third meeting of the Council the South Africa – Russia Dialogue Forum took place on 6 October 2015 after the end of the conference. Members of the South African Council in attendance were professors Olivier and Geldenhuys, Adv. Stroebel and Dr Georghiou (co-opted). Professors Schoeman and Zondi were absent. The Russian Council members present were Professors Davidson, Filatova and Shubin, and Doctors Voevodsky, Sidorov and Suchkov. Professors Volchkova and Urnov and Dr Arkhangelskaya were absent.

The Council thanked Dr Suchkov and Vnesheconombank for financial assistance in obtaining the venue for the second day of the conference and providing refreshments and sponsoring the reception. The Council also expressed its gratitude to the Higher School of Economics for partial funding and organisation of the conference and to Dr Voevodsky and Prof. Filatova for their respective parts in arranging the conference.

The Moscow 2013 Council meeting had adopted the following goals for future activities:

  1. to organise regular conferences, seminars and workshops on subjects of mutual interest;
  2. to publish regular academic books, articles, brochures and ad hoc-studies, covering topics of mutual interest;
  3. to create a virtual internet platform in order to facilitate continuous contact and exchanges among members of the SARDF;
  4. to liaise with the media and publicise the activities and ideas of the SARDF;
  5. to interact with business and civil society organisations with the purpose of improving and deepening of knowledge of Russia and South Africa respectively; and
  6. to work towards improving formal academic instruction in matters related to our respective societies and relations between them and to negotiate with the University of Pretoria and the NRU-Higher School of Economics to support this initiative.

The Moscow Council meeting of 2015 noted that some of the goals set in 2013 were successfully achieved and others not.

In 2015 several conferences on or in connection with South Africa and Russia’s relations with South Africa were organised in Russia. In October alone such conferences took place at the Institute of General History (Russian Academy of Sciences) and at the St. Petersburg branch of the National Research University – Higher School of Economics. There have been no similar conferences in South Africa.

Participants at the second meeting of the Dialogue Forum in 2014 have submitted their papers for publication in the South African journal Strategic Review for Southern Africa. Other academic articles on South Africa and Russia and the relations between the two countries have been published, as well as articles in South African and Russian mass media. There have also been several radio interviews. However, a publication of the materials of the second conference of the Dialogue Forum in Russian and English as a special issue of an academic journal or as a separate volume did not materialise.

Council members noted with satisfaction a certain interest in the activities of the Dialogue Forum among the Russian business community. This came in the form of a meeting convened by the Presidential Library a month before the 2015 Dialogue Forum conference. It was attended by representatives of Gasprom, Vnesheconombank and the Presidential Library itself, as well as representatives of Russian Council of the Dialogue Forum. Those present were briefed about the aims and tasks of the Dialogue Forum and its activities. However, practical support came only from Vnesheconombank.

As before, the SARDF’s intention to improve the situation with regard to Russian studies at South African universities remained unfulfilled. Russian studies as a field of specialisation simply does not exist in South Africa. The only encouraging development in this area was the series of lectures on contemporary Russia given by Prof. Filatova at the Summer School of the University of Cape Town. The situation is slightly better in Russia, where a group of Moscow State University students specialises in South Africa and do a course in the Afrikaans language.

However, there has been a noticeable growth of interest in Russia among the South African academic community. An increasing number of South African universities are keen to sign agreements of cooperation and exchange with Russian tertiary institutions, with the HSE prominent among them.

The Council requested its Russian members to investigate the possibility of having the 2015 conference papers published by the HSE in Moscow. The editorial board for such a publication would include Professors Geldenhuys and Filatova and Doctors Georghiou and Voevodsky.

Finally, the SARDF Council mandated the South African members to explore the possibility of holding the next conference in South Africa in 2016. The title proposed for the conference is ‘Towards the 25th anniversary of official relations between Russia and South Africa’.

Conference programme

Tshwane-Moscow Cities Cement Relations

The Executive Mayor of the capital city of South Africa, His Worship, Mr Sputla Ramogopa, reported on 24 December 2014 that he recently led a delegation from the city council on an official trip to Moscow to cement relations. He was Accompanied by the Member of Mayoral Committee for Economic Development and Planning, Cllr Subesh Pillay.

He said:

” The official visit to Moscow in the Russian Federation was at the invitation of the Mayor of Moscow, Mr S Sobyanin.”

The leadership of the two cities discussed ways of deepening economic relations. They agreed to sign an investment Memorandum of Understanding covering travel and tourism; economic development with emphasis on food exports and agriculture; infrastructure in areas of energy and transport; heritage, arts and culture; capacity building and so forth.
image image

Background is that in March 2013, South Africa and Russia moved to cement relations when President Jacob Zuma hosted his counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the fifth BRICS summit in Durban.

Nine agreements regarding education and cooperation in the fields of energy, fisheries, aviation safety, natural resources and transport agreements were signed by ministers from both countries during a ceremony that marked the Russian President’s second official visit to South Africa.

Russia further pledged to assist South Africans with training in state-of-the-art technology to build solar energy plants in South Africa.

This is therefore part of growing interaction between the two countries that should help deepen and widen relations after a long period of uneventful relations.


Eurasian Economic Commission Officials Visit South Africa

A delegation of officials from the Eurasian Economic Commission, a body created in 2011 by presidents of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan to expand economic opportunities for the shared economic space, visited South Africa to explore economic relations with SA and Africa broadly.

Led by Ms Tatyana Valovaya, a member of the Board of the Commission responsible for integration and macroeconomics, the delegation met South African business representatives, political actors and academics mainly in Cape Town through the support of the embassies of the Commission’s member states…

Armenia recently submitted its interest in joining the customs union and Kyrgystan is rumored to have started discussions in the same direction. Analysts suggest that the next countries to bid for membership will be countries like Turkey and Syria.

The union has a combined US$3 trillion worth of economy, expected to expand with time beyond being an energy-driven economic region to a more diversified economic zone. This makes a significant areas of economic opportunities for South Africa and Africa as it continues to diversify its trade relations globally on the basis of non-alignment and some pragmatism.

This visit received no media reports of note, but this does not mean that it was insignificant. The question is what is the potential for SA_Russia relations to be the springboard for relations with the whole of Eurasia generally or the Commission area particular? What would be the key drivers and pillars of such relations? What economic and trade potential lies is such relations? How should South Africa’s foreign policy and Russian foreign policy gurus be thinking through this development?

This subject is open to insights and ideas for all of our members and friends…

The Storm over a Russia Nuclear Deal: No Tea Cup Storm

A storm has brewed in South Africa after the announcement on Monday, 22 September 2014, of the signing of what the mass media called a deal to have the Russia nuclear facility, Rosatom, build a number of nuclear plants in South Africa.

The news headlines on Radio 702, one of the most influential talk radio stations in the country, called it a controversial deal done in a rush after an unplanned trip to Russia by President Zuma in August. On Tuesday, 23 September, the radio featured comments by one its trusted analysts, Professor Richard Callad from University of Cape Town, saying there was a lot of secrecy in the deal and that it raised questions about whether the Russians were being given a deal worth billions without a competitive bid. The Times newspaper featured a comment by a columnist who said this deal had the making of another arms deal-like scandal. The phone-in programmes of the SAFM, a national talk radio, featured comments that raised questions about whether the president was due to benefit from this and if other members of the governing elite were lining up for benefit.

Besides the fact that the growing problem of corruption in South Africa causes many in society and mass media to be extra-vigilant about any development that has the potential to be corruption scandal, the mainstream South African discourse is full of Moscowphobia. There is fear and suspicion about Russia, such that any engagement with Russia raises questions from a skeptical elite. The scandals and controversies that have rocked the Zuma government, plus general lack of confidence in some quarters in all post-apartheid government, adds to this climate of skepticism.

In this context, it is difficult to tell when the debate is honestly about questions raised by the agreement and when they are part of the on-going debates relating to perceived legitimacy of the Zuma government and its own reticent attitude to pro-active communication.

A close look at the agreement and the statement released on it does raise pertinent question relating to matters of facts and information about the agreement. The first issue is that the statement by Rosatom is more detailed than one from the Department of Energy. For instance, it is Rosatom that gave figures that are being worked including the thousands of jobs to be created and US$10bn worth of local local procurement to be involved in the projects.

Secondly, the agreement gives Rosatom an opportunity to build over 15 year period a world-class nuclear cluster from the front-end of nuclear cycle to engineering and equipment manufacturing. This promises to make South Africa a major player in nuclear and energy security around the world.

Thirdly, the agreement was said to be likely to lock South Africa into a costly undertaking over a long period time. A figure of up to R1 trillion was banded about in the mass media, sparking fears that this will rob society of essential resources for solving social problems. It was feared that this would also enriched unknown members of the elite.

The clarification of the matter subsequently as a mere framework agreement that will be signed with all prospective bidders for nuclear plants. But this does not explain why there is a commitment on he number of plants that Rosatom will be build and a host of other things they will do. What if they are not appointed bidders? Will they not be entitled to challenge government in court and claim costs of broken promise?

So, in the end there are more questions than answers. There are questions of communication or miscommunication that are most obvious in the idea of a non-binding agreement. Also, there are issues relating to explaining how we choose to balance the various components of the energy mix, especially where the National Development Plan (NDP) commits the country to a shift towards renewable and green energy.

Reasonable suspicion has developed that the high-level interaction between the executive of both countries with Zuma and Putin meeting several times, including political parties interacting more frequently. It is possible that political elites are interested in getting the agreement with Russia preferred, and they have the influence to make this happen. It is in the nature of national democratic society that the government commits to that there should vigilance in the public platforms, the asking of questions, and the raising of doubts about what is being said.

The rest of the controversy is to do with political views regarding the growing SA-Russia relations at a time when Russia is in conflict with western powers that have a constituency in the South African public. These relate to uneasiness in some quarter about South Africa





SA discourses on SA-Russia Relations haunted by the new cold war

SA discourses on SA-Russia Relations haunted by the new cold war

By Siphamandla Zondi, Institute for Global Dialogue at Unisa

The recent visit to Moscow by SA President, Jacob Zuma, happened as the west piled up pressure on Russia over the eastern Ukraine question, and thus generated much controversy about geopolitics at the expense of geoeconomics. Put simply, lots of discussion focused on the image of Putin and assumed democratic deficit in Russia than the economic relations the visit was about.

One weekly newspaper called it a mysterious visit, another called it unplanned, another described it as without substance. The public discourse from dominant quarters in SA discursive spaces projected the visit as an attempt to shore up an “unpopular Putin” under pressure from the “international community”, a euphemism for the west in South African discourses.

The geopolitical tensions between Russia and the west over the changing dynamics of eastern Europe/EuroAsia overshadow the geoeconomics of the growing South Africa-Russia relations. Hooked into the western mainstream discourse of Russia as some infantile democracy run by a delinquent warlord, a monster intent on taking the world back to the 19th century, a country to isolate and condemn, the SA mainstream public discourse looks at the SA-Russia relations through the prism of geopolitics and cultural civilisation as seen in the west and thus ignore the important geoeconomics. In this sense, it is a subordinate discourse, an echo on the discourses in London, Washington and Brussels. The dominance of pro-west voices including remnants of the western settlers attached culturally and in terms of political outlook to everything western gives the impression that the SA public sees Russia and its relations with the SA government through western eyes. It creates a sense that it is not an independent discourse based on African and SA considerations, but it is sub-discourse of conversations in the west.

Of course, as Peter Ekeh observes in his seminal article entitled Colonialism and the Two Publics, colonialism produced in colonial territories like South Africa a unique historical configuration in post-colonial Africa: whereas it is expected that there will a distinction between a private and public realms in any political society, in the former colonies there can be found two public realms with different moral linkages to the private realm. One is derived from what he calls primordial ties, groupings and sentiments and the other is based on western civic structures and has no moral linkages with the private realm for the indigenous people. We extend this to argue that while there is always going to be a distinction between elite discourses and discourse below, in the case of former settler colonies the elite can also be split into one elite that is an extension of the western elite l and the other that has more complex linkages with the bourgeoise globally, mostly indigenous elite or what Latin American thinkers call the creole elite. The two have a lot more voice in public discourses that get reported in the media. But the first though small is prominent well beyond its numerical strength, being in control of the public media and knowledge institutions. This has led to the prominent South African political critic, Aubrey Matshiqi, suggesting that the electoral minority has become a cultural majority in South Africa owing to its dominance of the public and intellectual discourse.

In the case of South Africa, the discourses of the cultural majority echo the views of the western elite with which it shares cultural affinity on matters of geopolitics and what Samuel Huntington called clashes of civilisations. In this, the issue of Russia-west rivalry is a case in point. The key messages of the western elite on this matters ( consistent in spite of internal cleavages within the western elite) I suggest, are: Russia is an infantile democracy, incomplete and under reversal by refusing to live up to the western imagination of democracy in full; Putin epitomises a remnant of the Soviet era of leaders who built authoritarian states incapable of responding to challenges of the modern state and economy, but thrive on concentration of power in the hands of oligarchies and dictators; Russia is trying to re-establish not just a sphere of influence in its western neighbourhood, but infact want to re-establish a remodeled Soviet Union type hegemony in the region, thus stoping the westernisation of Eastern Europe. In this sense, for the west assumed to be the victorious civilisation, anyone opposed to it is a monster seeking to turn back the hand of time. Thus, Russia is a dark sphere in the march of western civilisation redeeming Eastern Europe from the scourge of ideology and Putin is a monster.

The western media has used its massive presence to play to the world this image of the world made up of angels and devils where Putin alongside Bashar Al-Asad, Nicolas Maduro, and Raul Castro are devils and Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Manuel Barosso are angels seeking to save the world from the monster in the east. It has whipped emotions of hatred and scorn against Russia and Putin. It has in the process been willing to exaggerate his weaknesses. It ignores the many sins of the western bloc that has been responsible for wars and conflicts that have costs precious human lives in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.

The cultural majority in South Africa is deeply dismayed and embarrassed that SA has not joined western efforts to isolate and demonise Putin. They are angered that SA still rolled red carpet for Putin in a state visit in 2013 and called him friend in the BRICS summit in August 2014. The SA government statement arguing for a peaceful and negotiated solution of the Ukraine question was scorned as a tacit support for Putin, for in this discourse there is only one option out of the impasse: join the west in demonising and isolating Putin. In the paradigm of war, warmongers claim peace as their cause; so do those arming rebels all over the world.

The cultural majority’s frequent calls for a stronger projection of economic interests is abandoned in favour of isolationism. The revelation of the geoeconomics of relations, the growing volume and quantum of trade with the large Russian economy, potential benefits in technology transfer, the opportunities for SA capital and so forth fail to convince the dominant discourse that the SA-Russia story is more complex than geopolitics of east-west tensions.

The response to those of us who have argued that in keeping with the tradition of non-alignment SA must relate closely with both the west and Russia with special reference to trade, investment and science and technology is that relations with Russia are morally bad for a shining example of democracy.

It is in this context that the dominant public discourse on SA-Russia is conducted in moralizing tones and often overlooks the economic dimensions in spite of the fact that the SA government has been under pressure to attract trade and investment in the hope of stimulating growth and employment.

Now what is this economic dimension that I say is being overlooked? First, the two countries have now signed several firm bilateral agreements predominantly on matters economic. These are: financial services covering investment banking; energy including technology and investment into nuclear energy; transport; fisheries and marine resources; agriculture; science and technology: and education and skilling. These have opened opportunities for firms on both sides to explore and indeed the movement of capital between the two has increased. A number of major Russian corporations have set up shop in South Africa and more South African business have undertaken exploratory trips to Russia in the past three years than in the past.

Secondly, evidence of growth on trade and investment is emerging. In 2012 alone, trade between the two countries grew by 6 percent, well above average in trade relations of either country. From a value of just over R4 billion in 2009, trade increased to over R5 billion in 2012.

According to the SA Department of Trade and Industry, 28 SA companies participated in just one short Investment Trade Initiative in eastern Russia in December 2012 and generated almost R2 million worth of exports. The SA-Russia Business Council brings together yearly some 120-140 companies between the two countries. The number grow every year capitalizing in the warmth of the political relations.

It will take sometime for the social impact of growing economic relations to become evident. But certainly economic relations between the two have become an important pillar of bilateral relations rebalancing them from being mainly being politics to more a diverse framework assisted also by the fact that the two are key members of the BRICS platform.

While concerns about the geopolitical considerations to do with the east-west new Cold War with little to do with SA-Russia relations will continue to dominate public discussions about these relations in South Africa, the reality of growing geoeconomics is likely to grow unnoticed.

Is Russia the Answer to SA’s Pursuit of Expanded Nuclear Capability?

By Siphamandla Zondi, Institute for Global Dialogue

Presidents Jacob Zuma (South Africa) and Vladmir Putin (Russia) met twice in 2013 over energy cooperation in the context of South Africa’s huge anxiety about the security of its energy supplies. For once, there was a very specific developmental question over which there was supreme convergence of interest between the two countries.

The precarious energy supply in South Africa, with its major energy generator Eskom battling to make ends meet as energy demand surged, is one of major talking points in South Africa acrimonious public debates that are putting the government on a back foot. The country is finding it difficult to cope with the astronomical increase in demand for electricity.

Government has in the recent past adopted two strategies. The first is to invest heavily in expanding Eskom’s energy capability by constructing two major coal-fueled power stations, Kusile and Medupi. The construction of these two stations costing billions of rands, partly finance through international credit lines, has not progressed as well and fast as expected.

Many delays have been encountered in these projects. Occasional scheduled load shedding that has left some areas without power for up to three days have focused public anger on the efficiency of the construction process, thus putting immense pressure of Eskom and government.

Environmentalists and those concerned about the effects of carbon emissions on the atmosphere have also voiced their concerns that the new big stations will be using old fossil fuel-based ways of generating energy, a step backward from the global consensus in favour of reduction in carbon emissions by building capability for generating renewable energy, while slowly phasing out capacity based on fossil fuel.

The anticipated commissioning of the power stations have been rescheduled more than twice and government now expects full commission of one station in 2015-6, a first unit of this one turning on about August 2014 followed by others at 6-7 months intervals. Until then, the short energy supply will remain a binding constraint on economic growth and on the expansion of access to energy amount poor households.

The second part of the strategy has been to move faster in bringing into the energy mix alternative sources of energy, the biggest among which is nuclear energy and the smaller sources are hydro and wind renewables. The country currently has one nuclear station at Koeberg, contributing about 6.5 to the national energy grid. The government has decided to invest heavily in the development of nuclear capability, including research, technology development and infrastructure. It recently indicated its intention to issue a tender for the construction of nuclear stations as part of moving away from its dependence of coal-based energy. It sees this as in keeping its commitments in the Kyoto Protocol

Russian energy corporations are among the first to show interest. Companies like TVEL and NIAEP are said to be most interested in the nuclear energy tender. It is reported that some of them have actually participated actively in the pre- tender processes. They are said to be serious enough to have signaled to government what they are willing to do to help boost the country’s energy security. NIAEP already has signed with the South African energy regular, NERCSA, a memorandum of understanding for strategic cooperation in areas of construction of nuclear energy facilities, thermal energy and engineering.

South Africa-Russia relations are old and have evolved rather slowly in the pasts two decades. It seems that they have lacked a particular catalyst to fire them up with political relations being lukewarm as Russia looked over South Africa focusing on its immediate neighborhood and Europe. The Soviet period political chemistry between the political classes in Russia and in the biggest South African liberation movement, the African National Congress, would take a long time to recover from the post-Soviet lull as Russia refocused itself and redefined its role in the world. South Africa under the ANC has also not consistently pursued elevation of these relations by finding an effective glue that would bind the two countries’ strategic interests.

It is very clear that the growth of major developing countries in the past 2 decades has caused the Kremlin, especially during Putin’s second stint in the presidency, to notice and to take interest in search of allies and partners in its resurgence as a global economy and a global geopolitical stature.

The emergence of BRICS as a premier platform of emerging powers concerned with the high politics of global reform helped re-energise relations between Russia and South Africa as the first and the last members respectively. Through BRICS, the two countries have met at the highest political level a lot more times than before. They have improved bilateral diplomatic interfaces in some ways and this is showing in the growth in business and government delegations traveling between the two countries.

The state visits in the past year or two are indicative of this change in the temperature of relations. The content of the state visit discussions also suggest what might be the substance of policy agenda that the renewal of relations will draw from. The substance here includes energy, science and technology, trade and financial services, among others.

So, the developing relations between Russia and South Africa suggest that energy, Russia’s capabilities in the areas of nuclear and gas energy technology in particular, will be a game changer. The BRICS platform nurtures this warming of relations in ways not always well understood. But whether South Africa and Russia will develop energy interests into a significant site of strategic partnership remains to be seen.